Is a Culture Change Needed, Or Just a Realignment?

I’m working with a client to develop a communication plan that supports a renewed emphasis on safety as part of the company’s culture. Safety is important to this company, as it is for many, and always has been. However, some events in the company and its industry in recent years highlighted the need to reinforce certain principles around safety and its place in the company’s culture.

As I read some background material for this project, I came across a definition of company culture that I don’t recall ever hearing before:

Culture is for the group what character and personality are for the individual.

I like that metaphor. I, like many communicators, have sometimes struggled to articulate what company culture is and why it’s so important to organizations and the communication that takes place within them.

I know that character and personality are important aspects of who I am. My personality is the essence of who I am and it’s how people see me. My character is the way I live out who I am. Although some people might try, we can’t really fake personality and character. They reflect who I really am. And if my actions and words don’t match up relative to my personality and character, my integrity is called into question and people have a hard time trusting me.

The same is true for organizations. A company’s culture is what that company really is. If the words and actions of people in the company don’t reflect the company’s culture, then the company’s integrity is called into question and people have a hard time trusting it.

So here is a company in which words and actions regarding safety have not always matched up to the company’s safety-conscious culture. That’s a problem. Senior management is ready to lead the company through the steps necessary to bring its words and actions about safety into alignment with its culture. The communication plan we’re developing will help accomplish that.

Some organizations declare that they are setting out to change their culture and they look to the communication function to lead the way. But when people mention “culture change,” I believe they usually mean changing the words and actions to reflect what the company’s culture really is. If a culture truly needs to be changed — and some company cultures do because they are flawed — then that is an entirely different issue.

Do your organization’s words and actions reflect the real culture of your company? How can communication help ensure that they do?


3 Responses

  1. Robert-

    Communication about safety can only lead the way toward a (more) safety-conscious culture if the organization has a communicative culture. I recently took a survey that was titled “Survey Regarding Communication”–but it was really about top-down dissemination of information.

    More communication is not better, better communication is better (especially if it’s the downward-only model).

    Hope your client is ready for some genuine conversations–messy, heated, frustrating, revealing, refreshingly useful conversations.

    Good luck!

    • I agree, Bill. It’s like a point that was made in the discussion following my previous post on trust. Communication can help build trust, but trust also must already exist for effective communication to take place. It’s similar with culture change. Communication can help establish the desired culture of an organization, but the culture must be one that embraces open communication in order for it to be effective.

      I was reading an article today that said communication both reflects and reinforces the culture. I’ll buy that.

      Sometimes, however, culture change is not really called for. Rather, the culture — the organization’s personality and character — exists, but sometimes words and behaviors aren’t aligned with it. This is especially an area where communication can help by reminding employees about the organization’s culture attributes and the appropriate words and behaviors in that culture.

  2. I agree with you on every point. I think some C-suite folks think culture is what they aspire the company to be rather than what it is. This becomes very apparent when a company manager wants to introduce social media, which requires interactive communications, to a company that only issues top-down memos and edicts. I have to ask the social media enthusiast, “Are you and the rest of the management team ready to hear employee responses? Are you going to become more involved in the communication process? If not, social media isn’t an option.

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